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Analysis: Connacht's morphing 2-4-2 is showing the way forward

Connacht’s attacking improvement is now being driven by the province’s players.

ONE OF THE greatest rewards for a coach is seeing their players take ownership of a structure, system or cultural construct that has been put in place for them.

Coaches can introduce a highly-intelligent defensive tactic, for example, but what really makes it effective is players taking control of that tactic, analysing it, tweaking it and building it into something even more effective.

John Muldoon lifts the trophy Connacht's attack has been key in their rise. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Connacht have provided a live demonstration of that method with their consistent progression across all areas of the game this season. That their best performance of the season came in the Guinness Pro12 final last weekend was a result of their steady growth.

We have studied Connacht’s basic 2-4-2 shape before and this area of their approach serves as a fine example of how the western province, initially driven by their coaches and then through player engagement, have improved.

We have a framework,” says Lam, “and it’s more than just the 2-4-2. Whether it’s the lineouts, scrums, the different areas, the boys come in and get excited, they try things and say ‘this will work, this will work’.

“They’re all in front of the computers and can see different areas to improve. That’s pleasing as a coach and they can come in and change some of the detail.”

Indeed, this is the ideal for any coaching staff  - players who are genuinely enthusiastic about the way they are playing the game and, therefore, interested in how they can make it even better.

Shape

Anyone who has been watching Connacht this season will be familiar with the functioning of their midfield group of four forwards within the 2-4-2 set-up.

[image alt="Align" src="http://cdn.thejournal.ie/media/2016/06/align-630x335.png" width="630" height="335" title="" class="alignnone" /end]

While there is fluidity throughout Connacht’s alignment, their forwards most commonly find themselves set up in the manner we see above.

In the clip below, we see that exact set-up in action.

As we join play, Ultan Dillane [4] and Eoin McKeon [6] are in the left-hand 15-metre channel helping to resource the ruck in that area.

[image alt="Left 2" src="http://cdn.thejournal.ie/media/2016/06/left-2-2-630x374.png" width="630" height="374" title="" class="alignnone" /end]

As Connacht move the ball into the middle of the pitch, we can see that Ronan Loughney [1], Aly Muldowney [5], Finlay Bealham [3] and Tom McCarntney [4] make up a familiar quartet in that zone.

[image alt="Shape" src="http://cdn.thejournal.ie/media/2016/06/shape-14-630x355.png" width="630" height="355" title="" class="alignnone" /end]

Muldowney has so often been the passing fulcrum for Connacht in this position, as he is here, sending the ball out the back door to a backline player.

In this instance, Robbie Henshaw [12] is the man who fills that role, providing the chance for that second wave of attack.

It is worth pointing out that Connacht are increasingly fluid in how their backs fill positions like this one.

Lam and his coaches – including the influential assistant attack coach Conor McPhillips – have been pushing them to take on roaming roles in working around their forwards’ set-up and that appears to have been increasingly accepted and owned by the backs.

Finally in terms of the set-up here, we have noted below that John Muldoon [8] and Jake Heenan [7] are wide right for Connacht.

Shape .1

Muldoon and Heenan haven’t quite made it all the way out to the 15-metre channel on that side of the pitch but they are nonetheless already stretching Leinster’s defence with their width.

A large part of the philosophy behind the 2-4-2 alignment is to always have that width in the attack, allowing Connacht to either get outside the defence or breach it by demanding wider spacing and therefore opening up holes further infield.

Our main point of focus here is what the midfield grouping of Connacht forwards does. It’s something that will be very familiar to supporters of the western province.

Aly Source: Sky Sports

AJ MacGinty, the first receiver from Kieran Marmion’s pass, finds Muldowney and the lock has options to carry himself, tip on a pass to Finlay Bealham on his outside shoulder or slip the ball out the back to the waiting Henshaw.

There is even some possibility of Muldowney dropping a short pass back inside to Loughney, but it’s one that’s rarely used.

With Leinster’s midfield defence getting up hard on Muldowney, he just has time to catch, turn as he goes to his knee, and pass to Henshaw. Connacht can suddenly threaten Leinster wide on the right.

Variety

Again, those who have been watching Connacht play this season will have noted that the westerners don’t simply put the ball out the back door every single time when they find themselves in this particular shape.

Lam has very much handed decision-making responsibility on the pitch to his players and they are tasked with finding the best solution within their framework.

Taking the set-up above as an example – there are many different configurations within the 2-4-2 shape itself depending on whether the team plays off scrum-half or a first receiver on that particular phase – we can run through a handful of those.

For the purposes of clarity in these animations, the only backs included are the scrum-half, out-half and one midfield back in behind the quartet of forwards in midfield.

Tip On

In the animation above, Muldowney [5] tips on the short pass to Bealham [3] on his outside shoulder.

Below, we see Muldowney tip on to Bealham, who in turn moves the ball on to McCartney [2] on his shoulder.

2

As mentioned before, there are also options for Muldowney to carry hard himself, and we’ve already seen the back-door option in action against Leinster.

It means that while the opposition defence know what exactly kind of attacking shape they are coming up against, there are a wide range of options for them to defend against.

What has made Connacht so effective is that they have been working extremely hard on the handling, carrying and decision-making skills required to make maximum use of their shape in attack.

Most encouragingly of all, Lam is now seeing his players produce the ideas that continue to unsettle and confuse the defence.

Against Glasgow in the Pro12 semi-finals, we saw an interesting use of the back-door option.

Glasgow EG Source: Sky Sports

On first glance, the play looks similar to the clip from the Leinster game but Connacht actually pull the pass back from one position further out the pitch.

It’s Bealham who accepts Muldowney’s tip-on pass, turns as if to send that second tip-on pass to McCartney but then swivels behind to find Aki, who has started in a slightly wider position than usual.

Below, we see that same play but if Connacht were coming from left to right.

Back Door 1Out

MacGinty finds Muldowney, who tips on to Bealham but instead of the tighthead slipping the ball short to McCartney, he finds Aki out the back of the hooker.

This addition to Connacht’s attack is one that was designed by the players themselves.

Lam says his players became aware that opposition defences were reading the two tip-on passes a little comfortably and making some dominant hits on McCartney [or whoever filled that role at the time] after the two short passes.

Putting their heads together, Connacht’s players came up with the solution.

While Aki is a little isolated in the example against Glasgow, we can see that the variation in Connacht’s attack initially exposes the Scots.

Wilson

Ryan Wilson is marked in red above and his actions are the key to Connacht’s attacking play. Lam’s men want to lure Wilson onto McCartney running a hard ‘Y’ line towards Bealham.

Wilson does indeed buy that decoy line from McCartney and he bites in on the Connacht hooker, creating a disconnect with Peter Horne outside him in the defensive line.

Gap

It’s that exact disconnect [marked in white above] that Aki is targeting in this instance. He looks to burst through, but he is halted as Simone Favaro works hard to hunt across from the inside, getting a blow to the head for his troubles, and Horne is able to turn in.

The main reason that Horne can turn back, and the reason Aki is isolated, is because Connacht don’t have numbers in the left-hand 15-metre channel on this occasion.

With the four forwards having been required to maintain possession wide on the right initially, Connacht can’t actually stretch the defence with their width as they usually do.

Nonetheless, this glimpse of a new picture unsettled Glasgow’s defence and demonstrated that Connacht are thinking about new ways to make their attack fire all the time.

Putting it together

Against Leinster in last weekend’s Pro12 final, we saw a much more successful use of this variation in one of the most impressive passages of attack from Connacht.

Source: Sky Sports

This passage is most memorable for Ultan Dillane’s steamrolling of Dave Kearney but it really is worth watching the full 43 seconds above as we see a stunning demonstration of how difficult Connacht are to defend.

Initially, they break out from deep in their own half – a common trait in their play – as Robbie Henshaw produces a sublime pirouette out of Ben Te’o's poor tackle attempt and then lays off a sumptuous one-handed offload.

Robbie Source: Sky Sports

More important than any shape or structure are the individual attacking skills a team possesses and Connacht have them by the bucketload.

Virtually all of their players are comfortable with ball in hand and their mindset is very much one of ‘getting beyond the defender’ rather than ‘winning the collision’. They bear all the trademarks of the Kiwi influence of the likes of Lam, Dave Ellis and Andre Bell.

Whereas Henshaw in an Ireland jersey is asked to hammer into defenders and win the gainline that way, when he played for Connacht it was more often about using his skills to complement his undoubted physical prowess.

His offload here frees Niyi Adeolokun to burn past Johnny Sexton and Connacht are away and in behind Leinster.

1-Man Ruck

Having made it so far over the gainline, Connacht only need one man at the breakdown in Muldoon, as we can see above.

Leinster might wonder whether they should have attacked Muldoon on the counter-ruck here, but they are scrambling backwards and their main worry is the width that they are fully aware Connacht are going to spring on the very next phase.

Lam’s side have their four-man set-up waiting to take the ball from MacGinty as they come back to the left.

4-Shape

Connacht know the space is wide on the left so it’s always likely that they’re going to use the back-door option to Aki here.

It’s worth noting briefly that the positioning of the four forwards here has slightly changed. Bealham [3] is inside Muldowney [5], with Loughney [1] now on the lock’s outside shoulder.

We spoke about fluidity in how the backs’ function around their forwards’ shape, but the same description applies to the forwards. Their understanding of the shape is deep and most of them can comfortably slot into different roles depending on the flow of the game.

In the same vein, the positioning of Heenan is of interest.

McCartney Heenan

The openside flanker is marked above, in a position between the midfield quartet of forwards and the two in the left-hand 15-metre channel.

Connacht’s framework would usually call for Heenan to be wide on the right along with Muldoon but the flow of the game means he is better utilised right where he is.

Sprinting wide to the right wouldn’t make any sense, of course, when he can instead link Aki to the two-man pod of forwards on the left. Again, it’s about fluidity and players being able to think on their feet rather than slavishly sticking to a prescribed pattern.

When the ball gets to McKeon and Dillane, we get another demonstration of the value of Connacht’s 2-4-2.

Mismatch Source: Sky Sports

Mismatches are more commonly used to describe dancing backline players picking out ‘fatties’ in the defensive line, but we see another variety of mismatch here.

Dave Kearney is a very strong defender and weighs in at around 95kg but he is always going to struggle against the ultra-explosive 115kg Dillane when he is drifting so hard across the pitch to even cover the lock in the first place.

It’s a mismatch in terms of size and power and the result is clear.

Connacht are right over the gainline and again Leinster are unable to slow the ball. Jack McGrath does attempt to fight in at the ball but Heenan, Matt Healy and McKeon provide security.

Leinster understand that Connacht are going to come back again with their midfield quartet of forwards led by Muldowney and it’s now that Lam’s men strike with their clever variation.

Shape Aki

We can see above that Aki has started in that slightly wider position for Connacht, giving himself the time to be able to get in behind McCartney to accept a pass from Bealham.

While Leinster do manage to get some sort of linespeed in the middle of the pitch to pressure Muldowney to a degree, they are concerned about the width of Connacht’s set-up yet again.

O’Halloran, Henshaw, Muldoon and Adeolokun are all holding wide outside Aki so we can see that there is already a disconnect of sorts between Jordi Murphy and Garry Ringrose as McCartney runs his hard line.

Disconnect

Murphy has to deal with the threat of Bealham on the ball after Muldowney’s tip-on pass, so Ringrose realises that McCartney is a major threat to Connacht’s line with that possible second tip-on pass and turns in to deal with the hooker.

Ringrose

Bealham, who always has that option to actually hit McCartney short, goes out the back door of his hooker to Aki and suddenly there is real space for the centre to run into outside Ringrose.

Oddly for him, Aki is indecisive as he realises how much time he has on the ball, with Sexton having to be so concerned with the big numbers Connacht have on the outside.

Aki Hole

Sexton can’t commit back inwards to hit Aki and so, even with his hesitancy, the Connacht centre makes further yardage for his side after their intelligent, self-designed variation on the midfield play.

Leinster are now struggling badly and realising that a try is perhaps the inevitable next step against a rampant Connacht attack, Eoin Reddan makes the decision to kill the ball, kicking it out of Finlay Bealham’s hands as he – once again – plays scrum-half.

Reddan could arguably have been sent to the bin for killing Connacht’s momentum here but the western province do at least get three points for their stunning efforts.

Three points built in the analysis room and out on the training paddock at the Sportsground by Lam’s players.

Cog

It’s worth pointing out that this play Aki, McCartney and Bealham came up with is but one tiny detail in a game plan and attacking system full of them.

There are a wide, wide variety of ways in which Connacht can attack the opposition and it’s one of the reasons they are so hard to defend against. The most exciting thing is that all of this remains a work in progress.

Even in the examples we’ve seen above, it’s not perfect by Connacht. There is real room for growth across the board in their attack, even if it is already streets ahead of many of their Pro12 oppositions’.

1+1+1+1 Source: Sky Sports

When Connacht’s forwards play directly off scrum-half we’re increasingly seeing all of their midfield quartet being viable options.

While Muldowney has sometimes been the clear target in the past, Lam’s men are increasingly positioning themselves in a manner that means each one of the four forwards [or five in the unsuccessful instance above] can handle the ball.

They can also continue to run at the defensive line even when width seems the preferred target. We’ve seen that in recent times with MacGinty challenging the line when the opposition are expecting that midfield group of forwards to get on the ball.

10 Role Source: Sky Sports

We’re even seeing forwards occasionally slot into roles played by backs in Connacht’s attacking structure, with Muldoon the man to do so in the example below.

With no back in a viable position to provide the back-door outlet, the 33-year-old slots in and fires off a wide pass that allows Connacht to threaten on the left.

Muldoon Free Role Source: Sky Sports

The fact every one of Connacht’s players are so comfortable within their attacking systems is a reassurance with MacGinty, Henshaw and Muldowney leaving this summer. Still, replacing the playmaking second row will be of chief importance for Lam.

Muldowney Source: Sky Sports

As well as being a tough lock who scrummages well and runs an excellent lineout, Muldowney is one of the finest passing forwards in Europe. As is highlighted by the example above, Muldowney is superb at disguising his pass.

Initially, it looks like he will carry at the defence but he turns late and finds Henshaw in behind to allow Connacht to go wide yet again.

Andrew Browne has backed up Muldowney well in this role over the course of the season, while Dillane is a forward who is very comfortable on the ball. The Ireland international’s value in the wide channels is obvious, however.

Back row Sean O’Brien has history in the second row, while the likes of Ben Marshall, Quinn Roux and Danny Qualter will all be eyeing their opportunities to step up to the plate next season.

The key is that all of them, indeed all of Connacht’s squad, have a deep understanding of their attack and the skillset to perform within it.

Most crucially of all, Connacht are never standing still.

“It morphs itself and Pat sees stuff and Conor and Andre, the players, and it comes in cycles,” says Muldoon of Connacht’s attack.

“Teams try to defend what we’re doing and then we come up with something else or there’s a little thing that we tweak, and I think that’s the best thing. We’re always moving forward.”

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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